From hefty histories to chick lit: What I learned from reading two decades' worth of NYT Notable Books lists

How the most anxiety-inducing of year-end books lists has reflected the changing publishing landscape

Published December 5, 2014 12:00AM (EST)

  (AP/Reuters/Virginia Mayo/Jens Norgaard Larsen/Katja Lenz/Photo montage by Salon)
(AP/Reuters/Virginia Mayo/Jens Norgaard Larsen/Katja Lenz/Photo montage by Salon)

The annual publication of the New York Times Book Review's "100 Notable Books of [whatever year it happens to be]" is greeted with crossed fingers and braced egos throughout the book world. There are surely some authors who believe themselves worthy of the Book Review's far more exclusive top-10 list, but most will acknowledge that winning that honor is a long shot. The Notable list, however, seems so much more attainable.

And what does "notable" mean, anyway? (More than one anguished author has issued this cry to the heavens.) The word is splendidly, even magisterially equivocal. For a book to be "notable" it need not even be particularly good. Stieg Larsson's "The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet's Nest" made the Notable list in 2010, although it's impossible to believe that anyone on the staff of the Book Review considers it well-written (and I say this as someone who gobbled up the whole Lisbeth Salander series). Nevertheless, the sales and ubiquity of Larsson's thrillers (or, say Sheryl Sandberg's "Lean In," on the 2013 list) make such books worth noting.

I've always assumed that the "Notable Books" issue exists for three purposes. (Full disclosure: I occasionally review for the New York Times Book Review and wrote a column for it in the early 2000s, but have no insider knowledge of the top-secret internal negotiations involved in making either of its two lists.) The most obvious purpose is to serve as a reminder for holiday shoppers, few of whom are likely to recall a review of a book that sounded like something their sister might like when that review initially appeared in April. The second is as a boon to publishers, who support the review with their advertising and appreciate being able to slap a badge reading "New York Times Notable Book of 2014" on the cover of the paperback edition. It looks and sounds impressive, whether or not anyone but authors and publishers actually trouble themselves to sit down and read the whole list.

Lastly, the "Notable Books" issue offers the Book Review's editors a chance to give a nod to books that were widely read or talked about during the course of the year. Some standards do apply: "The Da Vinci Code" did not make "Notable" when it was first published in 2003, but in the same year, Kenneth Pollack's "The Threatening Storm: The Case for Invading Iraq" -- a short-sighted work about the evils of Saddam Hussein, used to whip up pro-war sentiment -- did.

The New York Times Book Review currently makes back issues from 1997 to the present available on its website, and a long cruise through the past 18 years of "Notable Books" offers an evocative recap of the titles "people talked about" during a period of tumultuous change in the book and publishing world. The 1997 New York Times Book Review spoke to readers who'd never heard of Google, Wikipedia, Facebook or any form of social media, and most of them could not have told you what an e-book was. Today, the books the Review covers must compete with more readily available entertainment options than ever, not to mention the siren call of self-publishing: When everyone's writing their own book, they have a lot less time to read yours.

No doubt that's why the biggest change in "Notable Books" is simply its length. In the late '90s, that early-December issue of the Book Review was basically all list, including 100 fiction and poetry titles and nearly twice as many nonfiction books. This year's list is only 100 books total, half fiction, half nonfiction, a practice that began in 2004. The old-school lists could also be imperiously fusty, including such stoutly noncommercial titles as "Gladstone" by Roy Jenkins, a 700-page biography a British prime minister who died in 1898, or "Below the Convergence: Voyages Toward Antarctica, 1699-1839" by Alan Gurney. The authors of these books are most commonly referred to as "scholars," and even when the topics are less esoteric, the scope tends to be grand and the perspective Olympian: "Achieving Our Country: Leftist Thought in Twentieth-Century America" by Richard Rorty, "A Sense of Reality: Studies in Ideas and Their History" by Isaiah Berlin, two venerable 20th-century thinkers.

At the same time, a different approach to history -- shifting the focus from big ideas to small, concrete factors -- came creeping in, with Jared Diamond's bestselling "Guns, Germs and Steel" also appearing on the 1997 list. Weighty, authoritative books about great men (Dean Acheson, Alexander Solzhenitsyn) and their great deeds or the mandarins of Cold War foreign policy began to give ground to more intimate, quirky and personal biographies, like Francine du Plessix Gray's memorable domestic history, "At Home With the Marquis de Sade," and Simon Winchester's "The Professor and the Madman," about the compilation of the OED. This was also the heyday of a nonfiction genre called the micro-history, in which some humble object's responsibility for changing the world was touted. The popular micro-history boom began with Dava Sobel's wildly successful "Longitude" in 1995 and was promptly mastered by Mark Kurlansky, author of "Cod: A Biography of the Fish That Changed the World" (1998) and "Salt: A World History" (2002).

Genres rose and fell in fiction, as well. Helen Fielding's "Bridget Jones's Diary" made the Notable list in 1998, and launched a new breed of popular novel for young women that was shortly dubbed (to the displeasure of many of the authors included under the rubric) chick lit. Chick lit -- archetypally about the comic-romantic misadventures of a publicist hung up on Mr. Wrong -- has since virtually disappeared in its original form: paperbacks with pink high heels printed on their covers. However, a new genre called New Adult deals with many of the same themes, which when you get right down to it, never go out of style.

Meanwhile, a juggernaut was poised to invade the adult fiction lists from the one-time backwater of children's books. The first Harry Potter novel came out in 1997, but J.K. Rowling would not score a Notable listing until 1999, with "Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets," described by the editors as "an international phenomenon, entertaining for both children and adults." In 2002, Mark Haddon's "The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time" made the list of adult titles, although the novel (about an autistic boy's efforts to solve a neighborhood mystery) was published as a children's book in the U.K. The breakdown of the barriers between books for adults and books for kids -- still controversial -- had begun.

The nonfiction Notable lists of the 2000s frequently include book-length paeans to the free market, most of which came wrapped in socioeconomic trappings of varying degrees of transparency. Thomas Friedman's "The Lexus and the Olive Tree" (1999) is the ur-text for these ultra-contemporary accounts of where the world is heading. Their appeal lies in their promise to guide baffled businessmen into a less-scary future. The marketing-friendly pop-sociology of Malcolm Gladwell's bestselling "The Tipping Point" (2000) kicked off its own subgenre, packed with dodgily summarized research on such mysterious forces as randomness, black swans (whatever that is) and the wisdom of crowds. These books continue to sell well. They will still occasionally make the Notable list, provided they have the scientific credibility of, say, Daniel Kahneman's "Thinking Fast and Slow" (2011). The real payday for their authors, however, comes in corporate speaking and consultation fees.

For obvious reasons, the Notable lists of the 2000s were thronged with books on Islam, Afghanistan, geopolitics and war, ranging from Bernard Lewis' "What Went Wrong? Western Impact and Middle Eastern Response" (2002) to Anthony Swofford's "Jarhead" (2003), a memoir of serving as a Marine in the Gulf War. By 2004, however, books like "Chain of Command: The Road From 9/11 to Abu Ghraib" by the New Yorker's Seymour M. Hersh and George Packer's "The Assassins' Gate" arrived to tell the inside story of the fiasco of the Iraq War or to peer at the inner workings of the Bush administration. Beginning in 2009, books about the financial crisis and income inequality turn up in the Notable nonfiction roster. Packer was on that story, too, with last year's excellent "The Unwinding: An Inner History of the New America."

There are smaller, but no less telling trends to be found, as well. We've seen a rise in heavily reported critiques of our industrialized food system from journalists like Michael Pollan ("The Omnivore's Dilemma," 2006) and the emergence of the celebrity chef's memoir, from figures like Anthony Bourdain ("A Cook's Tour: In Search of the Perfect Meal," 2002) and Gabrielle Hamilton ("Blood, Bones and Butter," 2011).

Some things, however, never change -- not, that is, until death intervenes. Every book published by Philip Roth, John Updike, Martin Amis or Don DeLillo during those 18 years landed on the Notable list, however underwhelming it might be -- and DeLillo's "Cosmopolis" (2003) is mighty thin gruel. Thomas Pynchon, however, hasn't rated the same knee-jerk deference; there was no Notable love for "Inherent Vice" (2010). For those interested in gender counts, the Notable lists have been pretty equitable when it comes to fiction (53 women to 52 men back in 1997), whereas in nonfiction men have outnumbered women by as much as 3-to-1. This year, with the Notable list split into 50 fiction and 50 nonfiction titles, each half has also been divided evenly between books by men and books by women. It's an ingenious method of acknowledging you've applied a quota without actually having to come out and announce it. At a time when such breakdowns are minutely scrutinized and critiqued, there's no point in pretending otherwise.

The 2000s were decidedly the era of big, "social novels" by white men, with Jonathan Franzen's "The Corrections" serving as the template in 2001 (a really sensational year for fiction, by the way), followed by Jeffrey Eugenides' "Middlesex" (2002) and Jonathan Lethem's "The Fortress of Solitude" (2003). That's a penchant that seems to have faded pretty quickly, with only one novel on the 2014 fiction list -- Matthew Thomas' "We Are Not Ourselves" -- venturing into the style. You could, however, view the Jamaican novelist Marlon James' magnificent "A Brief History of Seven Killings" as an explosion of the same maximalist energy into some fresh territory, although the "social novel" was never really a white-guy thing. After all, Zadie Smith published "White Teeth" (2000) before "The Corrections."

Asked to reflect on any trends she spotted while compiling this year's list, the Book Review's editor in chief, Pamela Paul, replied, "Last year, we saw a number of strong, hefty titles about the economy, about contemporary politics and history, particularly with the approaching centenary of World War I. (Many of the books jumped the actual centenary year.) This year, there were far fewer of those books that stood out. Instead, we found there was more experimental fiction of note, a great deal of humor (even if dark) and a wave of strong essay collections, particularly by women. I think the list also continues to become more global, with an increasing number of books in translation, both fiction and nonfiction."

All that seems true, but so many good books are published every year that it sometimes seems that any trend is mostly a matter of perception and emphasis. For example, the "Notable Books of 1997" list features Vivian Gornick's "The End of the Novel of Love," a collection of literary and personal essays by a master of the form, and Carolyn Heilbrun's unforgettable "The Last Gift of Time: Life Beyond Sixty," as well as Diane Ackerman's collection of essays about working on a crisis-intervention hotline, "A Slender Thread." You could do the same with translations and experimental fiction.

Which is not to say that Paul is wrong. The kinds of books we've decided to "note" have changed over time, and so have the books that loom largest in our imaginations or that we urge on our friends, even if similar books have been around all along. In other words, it may be the readers who have changed as much as (if not more than) the titles made available to us. We now experience much of the world through the Internet, a medium that foregrounds and prizes the individual voice, and that (at its best) exposes us to other perspectives on the world. We're better prepared to appreciate what books like Leslie Jamison's "The Empathy Exams" or Eula Biss' "On Immunity" have to offer, or to plow through Karl Ove Knausgaard's massive novel-memoir, "My Struggle." And more books like them are out there right now, just waiting to be noticed.

By Laura Miller

Laura Miller is the author of "The Magician's Book: A Skeptic's Adventures in Narnia."

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